Rupesh Chhagan LAc   
December 28, 2010

If Buddha Got the Blues: Depression & the Noble Truths
posted under Depression, Meditation, Musings

If Buddha Got the Blues: Depression and the Noble Truths

“Ugh.”  He groans, turning away from the screeching alarm clock, and pulls the blanket higher over his head.  Mired in fog, he drops in and out of fitful sleeping, too incoherent to punch the snooze button.  The distance between the bed and the alarm is a castaway’s hopeless space between shore and passing ship.  It all seems like too much–the alarm clock, bathing, making breakfast, and the trudge to work.  From outside, an ambulance siren begins a wailing duet with the alarm.  The sounds of the highway and the dread of the day surround him, a back alley gang backing him into a brick wall.  His breath gets small in his chest and depression mixes into his cells like contaminated water…

Depression is a bitch.  It saps energy.  Socializing is impossible.  Creativity and joy go out the window.  There are a variety of methods for treating depression.  The holistic route of Hakomi, acupuncture, herbs, diet, and mindful exercise is an effective route.  These methods will be explored further in a future blog. First, I want to address the fundamental cause of depression.  It involves our attitude and understanding to the ups, downs, and in-betweens of life.  I will use the Buddha’s Noble Truths as the springboard.  This is the abridged version:

1st Noble Truth:  In life, there is suffering.

2nd Noble Truth: Suffering is caused by craving.

3rd Noble Truth:  Suffering is ended by ending craving.

4th Noble Truth:  To end craving, follow the 8 Fold Noble Path.

Whether you are an amoeba or have a big brain, the instinct of preservation and survival is embedded in our DNA.  Everything wants to live and not experience threats to existence.  All beings undergo old age, sickness, and death.  No one likes being separated from what one likes, or being exposed to what one dislikes.  Sorrow, pain, grief, and despair are inevitable experiences of being alive. These are the facts of life.

How can a whole-hearted acceptance of these facts of life alleviate depression? Most of our suffering comes from a denial of these facts.  The denial causes suffering. Everything in our culture is oriented towards avoiding discomfort.  We live in air-conditioned houses, consume resources as though there were no tomorrow, and stockpile lethal weapons in the futile quest for unattainable security.

The whole-hearted acceptance of the Noble Truths allow for relaxation into discomfort rather than amplifying suffering.  For example, when your overworked knee starts to develop arthritis, rather than throwing your fists up into the sky and cursing your fate or losing yourself in pain medications, you can tend to your knee with care and attention.  Of course, it’s not anybody’s preference to have an arthritic knee, but the suffering really begins when you pile on layers of mental anguish and unhelpful habits.

When lost in depression, there is a string, a series of thoughts—a rebellion against the Noble Truths.  There is, at root, some craving for life to be other than it is, some aversion to life as it is.  At depression’s root, there was a small thought.  “I don’t like this.”  “I like this.”  From there, an entire structure of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations was built on top of it.  Getting lost in this structure is the state of depression.

How do we get out of depression?

There’s reality.  And there’s our fantasy of how reality should be.  And never the two shall meet…

Zen meditation is a way to gently lift out of depression’s quagmire.  It is a technique in the art of accepting life as it is. The return to simply hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and functional thinking is a return to simplicity.  It is a movement away from the fantasy that depression springs from.

To accept life as it is does not mean that we collapse into a heap and let the world bludgeon us with stones.  Quite the opposite.  The simplicity of this attitude allows for an energetic and flexible being, grounded in the present moment.  We still have preferences.  We can still prefer to have our house air-conditioned.  We can still prefer that our knee not give out.  But inevitably, our preferences will not be fulfilled.  People will not conform to your fantasy of how best to behave.  Your vibrant youth will disappear.  Loved ones die. You can still have your preferences, but with a deep understanding of the Noble Truths, you can stay smiling when they go away.

Intellectual understanding of the Truths is not enough.  A deep understanding that settles into the bones requires meditation practice.  Two wonderful Zen centers in town are Appamada and the Austin Zen Center.  A great primer for deeper intellectual understanding is Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck.

Of course, when depressed, the last thing a person wants to do is meditate and observe dark thoughts.  Initially, you need some assistance.  Hakomi, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs can lift you up enough so that you can find the meditation cushion and the basic goodness of life as it is.